Southampton Art Gallery, Southampton

Charles Darwent on Uncommon Ground, Land Art in Britain: It may not be big, but it is clever

4.00

British land art used to be depressingly small-scale – but this excellent exhibition breaks new ground

I have had one piece of hate-mail as art critic for this paper, in 2003, from a land artist currently in a show called Uncommon Ground at the Southampton City Gallery. "You just don't get it, which is your perogative [sic]," hissed the letter. "You are both, but it is worse to be an amateur than a cynic." Ouch.

It seemed to me, a decade ago, that this pettiness was telling of British land art as a whole. I had just spent a happy fortnight driving across the American south-west, from Walter De Maria's Lightning Field to Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, via Michael Heizer's Double Negative. You wanted land art? That was land art. The British variant seemed depressingly scaled-down, like a symphony played on spoons. I may have used the word "whimsical" about it. So, I set off to Southampton, hoping to find I'd been wrong.

And, to some extent, I had been, although for the right reasons. British land art is small-minded, in the sense of being about smallness.

As with cowboy films, American land art takes as its starting point an idea of the epic, its aesthetics measured outwards, in increments of vastness. Lightning Field sits on 9,000 acres! James Turrell's Roden Crater is 600 feet high! By comparison, Spiral Jetty's 10-acre site makes it a miniature. This is not a kind of work that is open to artists from a crowded island a third of the size of Texas.

So, the first thing you notice about the land art in Uncommon Ground is that almost none of it involves land. It may involve photographing or filming land, measuring its surface, walking across it or turning it into words: but land itself, no. If American land art is Melville and Longfellow, British is the short story and sonnet. It is necessarily restrictive, and as a result diverse.

So diverse, in fact, that at the start of Uncommon Ground you wonder if "British land art" is a useful term at all. The curators of this clever show have broken their subject down into parts, all dating from between 1966 and 1979. There are surprise inclusions. Antony Gormley a land artist? Well, yes, for a time in the late 1970s. But then pretty well every inclusion is a surprise.

What do Gormley and Garry Fabian Miller and Hamish Fulton and Susan Hiller have in common? During the period in question, they all made work that in some way responded to the land. (A few still do.) I say "in some way" because their responses were so varied and the land so diverse.

The show's curators have listed these variously – by theme as Romantics or Environmentalists, by subject (Parks and Commons, Industrial and Working Landscapes), by material and process (Walking, Filming, Excavation, and so on). But is there a common thread in Uncommon Ground?

There are three. First, to be a land artist in Britain between 1966 and 1979 meant not making the kind of art other people were making: that is mostly to say Op and Pop, shiny art. Even the campest work in this show – Anthony McCall's film, Landscape for Fire, is a contender – has a seriousness that defines itself against the bright colours and shallow surfaces of painting at the time. It is earthy, deep.

And there is something else as well. Gormley's first land art piece had been made in the Arizona desert, although the work was on an insistently man-sized scale – Gormley built and then took apart a cairn, and threw its constituent rocks as far as he could. This was taking a British land art aesthetic into the American lion's den and refusing to be cowed. And yet there was a yearning for what the Americans had, the luxury of possibility.

This had not always been a uniquely New World commodity. There lurked, in the British visual memory, a time when not every acre of land was husbanded, when spaces were wide and open. Much of the work in Uncommon Ground tries to recapture that moment: it may have been a post-empire thing. Miller's photo suite, Sections of England: Sea Horizons, re-invokes William Turner, while Andy Goldsworthy's Slate Throw – the artist, tousle-haired, standing on a crag – has a feel of Caspar David Friedrich.

This is not cheap nostalgia. The other thing you notice about much of the work in this excellent show is its air of apocalypse, from the scavenging actors of the Boyle Family's filmed event, Dig, to Derek Jarman's arcadian but worryingly empty A Journey to Avebury. British land art looks backwards with one eyebrow raised, because looking forward seems too scary.

To 3 Aug (02380 832277)

Critic's Choice

Step into the Wellcome Collection in London, and outside your comfort zone. Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan, features 46 artists who are part of social welfare establishments, and proves that the results of art therapy can be fresh and entertaining (to 30 June). Ponder the question of intention at The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, a touring exhibition which is currently at Nottingham Contemporary (to 30 June).

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz